During the offseason – and especially once the season itself nears – we get a slow drip feed of new player projections telling us what to expect from so-and-so next season. They’re wrong a lot, but probably not that far off on average. And one concerning thing that the ones out there so far predict is a fairly mediocre season for Torii Hunter.
Torii Hunter put up an unexpectedly high 5.3 WAR as a 37-year-old in 2012, so it would probably be unreasonable to expect a repeat, but his Steamer projection calls for a 43 point drop in his batting average and only 2.0 WAR. His Oliver projection is even more pessimistic: a 62 point drop in his batting average and only 1.3 WAR. When other systems publish their results, they’ll likely paint a similar picture. All of these systems basically work in the same way with minor tweaks. They all base future performance on past performance (with varying weights on different years’ stats) and they all correct for mean regression (particularly in certain high variance stats like BABIP) toward the player’s own “mean” and toward the typical player’s “mean” along with some form of deterioration due to age. Hunter is old, he should be “deteriorating”. His 2012 was far above his career “mean” as well as far above the typical player’s “mean”, so he should regress.
Hunter has a career OPS of .801 and the upper and lower bounds set by Steamer and Oliver call for a .765 OPS or a .712 OPS. He’s no spring chicken (despite his 2012 numbers) and coming to a park known to be hard on right-handed power, so we should definitely be expecting something below his career average. Those projections – as far as Hunter’s offense is concerned – seem depressingly plausible. If we simply dragged Hunter’s 2012 BABIP (.389) down to his career average of .307 but assumed that the rest of his 2012 peripherals were exactly met he might actually hit worse than either Steamer or Oliver predicts: a .310 on-base percentage and a .391 slugging percentage, since both Steamer and Oliver predict that he’ll walk more and strike out less than he did in 2012. That, sadly, would not make a $13 million player and might not even improve the offense much over last season’s Boesch platter.
We know that the Angels weren’t especially interested in keeping Hunter and we know that their overstuffed outfield had something to do with it – though that wasn’t enough to stop them from paying big bucks to impulse buy Josh Hamilton. They DID make Hunter an offer, though, even if it was an insulting low-ball offer. The thing is, if you buy into Oliver’s projection their insulting low-ball offer was fair – given an assessment of “market value” at about $4.5 million per win. At the Steamer projection, he’s a $9 million player. To be worth the money that the Tigers will be paying him, he has to come pretty close to 3 wins – and the projection systems don’t seem to think it’s likely.
Personally, I think the chances are good that his BABIP will stay elevated (though not THAT elevated) since it is both due to a change in his approach at the plate and because it will be positively impacted by his new home park. I’m also very skeptical that we will see any improvement in his walks, strikeouts or raw power numbers. When you put all that together, I’m not sure that anything better than a .750 OPS is even a plausible scenario. BUT, I also think that these systems are giving Hunter the shaft in the one area of the game that the Tigers are looking for improvement and value.
See – when these systems project value, they don’t just look at offensive output, they also look at things like baserunning and defense. They aren’t forgetting about Hunter’s glove, they just aren’t expecting it to be particularly good. Steamer projects slightly below average D, Oliver projects slightly above average D. If that is all he provides, he will still be a big improvement over Boesch’s 2012 but he will still be a big disappointment. Hunter was more than 10 runs above average last year by FanGraphs FLD – the guy has won 9 Gold Gloves. If he’s projected to be a barely average corner outfielder, the question is why? Defense DOES decline with age, so there could be some assumptions regarding that factoring in.
I have the feeling that it’s a combination of using the wrong stats and assuming the wrong position. Hunter was good in the field by FLD in 2012, but below average in 2011 and 2010, again according to FLD. Make your projection based on that (and age) and you’d get basically what Steamer and Oliver do. Advanced fielding metrics are notoriously fickle as concerns measurements of a players range because they don’t usually account well for how difficult a given play would have been to make. The best in that respect is Defensive Runs Saved which separates “plays made” from “good fielding plays” to correct for the difficulty involved. Go by that and Hunter was a +9 in 2011 rather than below average. He was poor in 2010 according to basically any measure, but that was also his last season as a regular center fielder – a position that he apparently no longer had the legs for. Look at the right numbers and what you see is a guy who has been a very good right fielder since he moved to that spot and no real reason to expect him to regress much there. If Hunter gives the Tigers a win with his glove, his Steamer OPS projection would be enough for him to produce his contract value and even the worst-case at the plate wouldn’t really be that bad.